Archive for February, 2016

Volunteering in Lesvos

11/02/2016

In January 2016 I spent two weeks in the Greek island of Lesvos as part of the international humanitarian solidarity movement responding to the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

With the support of you – my friends, family, neighbours and communities – I was able to join the international humanitarian solidarity movement supporting refugees fleeing violence and war in the Middle East. I raised £1484, collected 10 kg of hats, gloves and scarves and received an unmeasurable amount of love and hope from you. It is only a drop in the ocean but I believe that each contribution we made, whether of money, clothes, concern, time or prayers, was valuable. Together, we made a small but significant difference to the people on their way to a new life. 

(I raised more money than I expected so I’ve donated £650 to the projects described below.)

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People from all over the world converged on the Greek island of Lesvos.

maprefugeeflowMost of the refugees came from Syria and Afghanistan but I also met people from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

DIRTY GIRLS OF LESVOS

Many of you donated money directly to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos. I donated £50 and two weeks of my time and effort. Alison Terry-Evans set up Dirty Girls last summer and has devoted herself full time to fundraising, recruiting volunteers, liaising with NGOs, local people and the laundry as well as sorting the clothes and cleaning the beaches. My task was to pack the wet clothes into bags and pile them by the side of the road where they were picked up by the laundry. Then bring the clean dry clothes to the clothing tents at the reception camps to be distributed to the next boatful of people. This work benefited the refugees who were at risk of hypothermia in their wet clothes, the local economy by giving business to a commercial laundry and the environment by keeping many tonnes of usable clothes out of landfill.

IMG_20160110_121552This is my Dirty Girl mate, Carol from Chicago, pointing out the results of our hard work.

Notes from my journal: This is hard physical work and doesn’t involve much contact with refugees but I feel I’m doing my bit behind the scenes. Often people join us so I’ve had a chance to meet other volunteers from all over the world. I feel humbled by the willingness of ordinary people to leave their comfortable lives and come here to help the refugees. Today I worked with Eddy, a paramedic from the US, finding mates for socks. He’s willing to do anything that helps.

IMG_20160118_094745Volunteers from Sweden, Germany New Orleans, and England at a sock pinning party

Notes from my journal: I’ve noticed some frustration among the volunteers I’ve talked to, people feeling that we’re not doing anything useful, that our time is being wasted, that we can’t figure out how things work. Then I read a page of tips posted on the Facebook page Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers – “do not assume you have a better solution or system especially if you have recently arrived. Often things are done in a particular way for a reason which has been worked out by many people before you. Inefficient does not necessarily mean ineffective.” OK, let’s wait and see.

LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF REFUGEE CAMP

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I donated £300 to the Lighthouse Camp, a Swedish charity. They meet the boats, offer tea and soup, provide dry clothes and medical facilities. They need funds for running costs – gas for the generator, firewood, gravel for the paths, latrine maintenance and food. With more money coming in, they could pay salaries, accommodation and flights for staff so that people could stay long term. Right now, all are short term unpaid volunteers.

IMG_20160114_170505That’s Turkey where the boats come from. It’s only a few miles from the coast of Lesvos.

Notes from my journal: 

Although bright and sunny, no boats today as it’s very very windy, the wind blowing towards Turkey, the sea with whitecaps and spray. The water ripples as if being chased by invisible forces. Cumulus clouds are piled up against the blue sky, thunder and lightning streaks in the dark clouds over the mountains in Turkey.

Long talk with Father Christoforos Schuff, a Greek Orthodox priest with long experience helping refugees on Lesvos. He explained the smuggling operation on the Turkish side. Syrians pay 950 – 1500 euros per person. Afghanis pay 300 euros per person. Middlemen arrange everything. Refugees stay in town, get a call to go to a designated meeting place. They’re put in a minibus and driven to a place where they join other refugees. The larger group is loaded into buses or vans and driven for hours to another meeting place where there are even more refugees assembling. The people are transferred to lorries, standing room only, and driven to a forest by the shore. Cardboard boxes containing inflatable boats, engines and pumps are waiting for them. The smugglers sell fake life jackets, instruct the refugees how to inflate the boats and give a 5 minute lesson in piloting a boat to one of the refugees. None of the smugglers get arrested by either the Turkish or Greek Coast Guard. Everyone assumes the Turkish authorities are corrupt and are making big money out of these operations. 

I was told that boats often get only halfway across and run out of petrol because the smugglers don’t fill them up. If they’re lucky, they’re towed by rescue boats the rest of the way. Otherwise they have to paddle.

DSC_0090There were often so many volunteers eager to help that I stayed out of the way. This photo was taken by Alison Terry-Evans in the summer of 2015. 

Notes from my journal: 

Two boats came in this morning to the beach at Skala. There were lots of children running around, ever so cheerful – they are incredibly resilient. I offered to take a photo of a woman and man from Afghanistan who’d just got off the boat. The woman’s mother appeared and insisted on taking a picture of me with them. They had basic English and could say ‘nice to meet you’ which they said several times. 

Several boats arrived at once – frenetic activity while everyone got sorted with dry clothes, hot cups of chai, and whatever medical attention was needed. Then they were all driven away in minibuses and the camp was nearly empty except for one young woman who came to me pointing to a small rip in the pair of jeans she’d been given. I went in to the women’s clothing tent and pleaded on her behalf for another pair though I wasn’t completely sure if she wanted unripped jeans or jeans with a bigger rip. The volunteer who was frantically getting ready for the next onslaught was not sympathetic. “No way. A small rip is the least of her problems.’

Today in Lighthouse Camp, boat after boat arrives. I go back and forth, back and forth, carrying men’s trousers, shoes, socks to the men’s tent. At a volunteer briefing meeting the other day, the volunteers were reminded that we’re there to make the refugees feel safe and welcome so I stop often to smile and talk. Language is a problem as I don’t speak Arabic or Farsi. 

A woman outside the women’s clothing tent points to herself: ‘From Syria. Mother, sister in Syria. Leave Syria. Daesh (she mimes beheading). Dubai – no take Syrians. Saudi Arabia – no Syrians.’  Me: ‘Jordan? Lebanon?’  Woman, looking disgusted. ‘No.’

IMG_20160111_090954The remains of an inflatable rubber dinghy that carried up to 50 people.

Notes from my journal: One morning at 7 a.m. on the way to help set up the Platanos Camp, I passed one of the tavernas and noticed it was full of people, all silent, sitting in the dark. Later that day I learned that a large group of refugees had arrived in the night and with the help of some villagers had broken into the taverna seeking warmth and medical attention. They weren’t in time – a 4 year old boy and a 42 year old woman had died of hypothermia. 


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Getting the camp ready for the arrival of the boats.

MORIA CAMP ()

I donated £300 to the independent voluntary group providing support for refugees in Moria Camp – Better Days for Moria This is the centre where the Greek authorities register all the refugees who arrive on Lesvos. Once registered, they can travel on to the Greek mainland and continue their journey into Europe. Refugees stay in Moria for a day up to several weeks.

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IMG_20160115_141801Afghan Hill where non-priority refugees waited for registration


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The children’s play area

IMG_20160115_133504Clothing tent in Moria

SKALA SIKAMINEAS

I stayed in this beautiful little fishing village – population about 200. The villagers have suffered from the flood of refugees arriving in their space, both emotionally and economically. I was told about the trauma they’ve been experiencing as they’ve tried to rescue distressed and dying people over the last year without any help from the Greek authorities. As they rely on tourism, the fact that summer bookings are down by 80% is a catastrophe for them. I contributed to their economy by staying in a local guest house and eating at the tavernas. 

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Notes from my journal: 

Such a busy day. My prayers to be useful were answered. As we were eating breakfast at a taverna on the harbour, a boat was towed in by one of the rescue teams. It’s unbelievable that so many people could fit into such a small boat. None had luggage or bags. They’d had to leave them behind as the smugglers crammed more and more people into the dinghy. I escorted a soaking wet, shivering family with two babies to one of the reception camps down the road.

Went to clean up harbour area, littered with life jackets and rubber dinghies. Found a soaked and discarded backpack. Opened it to see what could be salvaged. Found Syrian money (100 Syrian pounds is worth 42 pence), nappies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, haircutting scissors, bottle of eau d’cologne, thermos bottle, packets of cookies, large metal coffee jug, neatly folded baby clothes. 

HOPE CENTRE, ELPIS 

I gave all the clothes you donated to this project – a derelict hotel in the north of the island that is being renovated to become an emergency short term (few hours to overnight) support space for people landing on the nearby beach. Although not yet completed, they have already begun receiving people and offering them dry clothes, hot drinks, showers, shelter and lifts to the registration camp in the south of the island.

IMG_20160121_233241At Heathrow Airport wearing one of the fake lifejackets sold to the refugees

Reflections on volunteering in Lesvos

10/02/2016

That woman,
the one climbing out of the sinking boat
the one with blue lips in a light summer coat
the one whose life jacket does not even float.
That woman could be me.

That man,
the one with holes in his worn out shoes
the one who has nothing left to lose
the one you saw on the six o’clock news.
That man could be you.

That elder,
the one so weak she can barely stand
the one clutching grandchildren in each hand
the one uprooted from her ancestral land.
That elder could be my mother.

That little girl,
the one too dazed to take sweets or fruit
the one not crying, the one who’s mute
the one the Taliban didn’t shoot.
That girl could be your daughter.

That toddler,
the one who arrived sick and damp
the one who was crying and suffering from cramp
the one playing happily in the refugee camp.
That boy could be our grandson.

That fisherman,
the one overwhelmed by the thousands who flee
the one fishing bodies out of the sea
the one abandoned by the powers that be.
That man could be our brother.

Those people,
the ones selling life jackets – useless and fake
the ones smuggling people in boats at daybreak
the ones who are desperate for money to make.
Those people could be us.

Those people,
the ones on the shore offering sweet cups of chai
the ones handing out clean clothes that are dry
the ones who can’t bear just to stand by.
Those people could be us.

And friends, those people are us.
We are those people.